Category Archives: theatre

Audio Stage, s.3.1, ep.1: Andrew Haydon

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This week, Jana speaks with independent theatre critic, Andrew Haydon, about audiences, histories and European vs English theatre.

Andrew is one of the few British theatre critics who regularly travels around Europe to see new work, and who is conversant in contemporary European theatre (and not just what happens on the British Isles), approaching it with a distinctly British, but never parochial, perspective. In his writing for The Guardian, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine, and in his respected blog Postcards from the Gods, Andrew has long championed unusual work, difficult work, and has often argued that the British theatre is unnecessarily conservative in terms of form and interest.

“I always wonder what it would be like to get a hardcore German theatre theoretician in to watch a load of the really hardcore naturalistic productions that still exist in Britain but just tell them “it’s all a concept” and they are not allowed to go “oh, you’re just being British”. They have to believe that it’s a metaphor. How that would read? I’m sure there’s actually some really creative thinking if we didn’t all just go “urgh! It just looks like a room. It’s meant to look like that.” If we actually thought about it more creatively. There’s probably better ways we could understand what’s going on. There is craft in the way these things are put together, obviously. But craft and possibly not philosophy.”
– Andrew Haydon

Discussed in this episode:
‘Live art’ and its global history, stage metaphor, the white male default, new writing and authorship, national identity, what defines a ‘national theatre history’, the demographics of theatre goers, the importance of arts writing, the fallibility of the critic and can theatre ever just be bad?

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

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Audio Stage, s.2, ep.5: Esther Anatolitis & Angharad Wynne-Jones

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In our momentous final, fifth episode on responsibility, Fleur and Jana spoke with two great women of the Australian performing arts: all-round cultural leaders Angharad Wynne-Jones, Artistic Director of Arts House Melbourne, and Esther Anatolitis, Director of Regional Arts Victoria (formerly CEO of Melbourne Fringe). In an emotional ending to the series, we touch on some important, often neglected questions: how do we create an ecology that supports the artist, as well as the arts?”

“Risk is not so risky. It’s a necessity. It is how forms develop, how we find new audiences, new artists, how cultural conversations happen.”
– Angharad Wynne-Jones

This is a very special episode. Angharad and Esther spoke with an authenticity and feeling that is rare in public discourse. We felt very privileged to have them with us, and we all left in tears.

Discussed in this episode:
George Brandis, being a person with a ‘decision-making potential and capacity to be confused’, the future, ‘creating new artistic frameworks for established arts companies’ and what that could possibly mean, the difference between advocacy and lobbying, audiences, the importance of having rigorous conversations about art, being accountable to the rate-payers of the City of Melbourne, bushfires, Kat Muscat, burn-out, and what is cultural leadership anyway?!

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

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Audio Stage, s.2, ep.4: Jolyon James & Sonya Suares

This week, Fleur speaks with Sonya Suares and Jolyon James on how the concept of responsibility relates to the actor: the responsibility of the actor, of the director to the actor, diversity in casting and the potential impact of not providing a multiplicity of stories and voices for our stages, and the responsibilities of creating work for children.

“There’s a consciousness that needs to be put around the way that we behave. We can’t just keep patting ourselves on the back or excusing it: ‘We’re creating art! It’s not real!’ It is also really happening to somebody.”
– Sonya Suares

Discussed in this episode:
Finding the ‘truth’ as an actor or lying about finding it, 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, creating a sense of safety in the rehearsal room, onstage nudity and vulnerability, We Get It, drama schools, bullying in the rehearsal room, actors learning to say ‘no’, sexual abuse within creative exploration, experiences of acting and casting as a woman of colour, the transformative body of the white actor, racial dramaturgy, Arena Theatre Company, creating work for children.

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

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Published in 2015/2016

THE GUARDIAN
Audience takes centre stage in pioneering virtual reality dance film, review of Stuck in the Middle With You virtual reality film, a collaboration between ACMI, Sydney Dance Company, and Gideon Obarzanek, 7 March 2016
Festival of Live Art review – nudity and confessions on the outer edges of experimental theatre, review of the first week of FOLA, 8 March 2016
Vitesse review – Australian Ballet serves ambitious contemporary triple bill, review of Australian Ballet’s contemporary bill, 15 March 2016

REALTIME
Francophone dance; a difference, RealTime 131, Feb-Mar 2016, Belgium/Germany/France column #06. Includes: two works by Kevin Trappeniers and Daniel Léveillé.

THE LIFTED BROW
The Critic #04, in the episode ‘ANZAC’, The Lifted Brow 25, The Relaunch Issue, 1/2016
The Critic #05, in the episode ‘Depression’, The Lifted Brow 26, 2/2016
The Critic #06, in the episode ‘Break-Ups’, The Lifted Brow 27, 3/2016
The Critic #07, in the episode ‘Tony Abbott’, The Lifted Brow 28 (The Art Issue), 4/2016
The Critic #08, in the episode ‘Rebounds’, The Lifted Brow 29, 1/2016

Some overdue house-keeping

What a year it has been, dear reader. I have been writing a lot, but I have not been so good at keeping track of it on GS. Apart from The Critic, my column for The Lifted Brow, which I have been dilligently tracking here, here are the other articles I have had published this year:

The Guardian:
Review of Chunky Move’s Depth of Field, March 16, Dance Massive 2015.

Review of Rawcus’ Catalogue, March 18, Dance Massive 2015.

Review of Roslyn Crisp’s The Boom Project, March 23, Dance Massive 2015.

Dancehouse Diary:
An Ethics of Touch, Dancehouse Diary #8 / 2015.

RealTime:
Review: Dance Massive 2015, RealTime 126. Includes: Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work, Tim Darbyshire’s Stampede the Stampede, Motion Picture by Lucy Guerin Inc, MEETING by Antony Hamilton.

De Keersmaeker’s dance of ever more simple movement, RealTime 125. Belgium column #01. Includes: Augustus ergens op de vlakte (August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts), by Tom Dewispelaere and Stijn Van Opstal at KVS; Partita 2, by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas; Golden Hours (As You Like It) by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Kaaitheater.

The deep roots of revelatory performance, RealTime 126, Belgium column #02. Includes: Le sorelle Macaluso by Emma Dante; Sonja by Alvis Hermanis.

Unburdened Australians in an adventurous mix, RealTime 127, Belgium column #03. Includes: For Your Ears Only by Dianne Weller at Beursschouwburg; Into The Big World by David Weber Krebs at Kaai Studios.

Going for the burn, RealTime 128, Aug-Sep 2015, Belgium/Germany column #04. Includes: Foreign Affairs Festival; Angélica Liddell & Atra Bilis Teatro: You Are My Destiny (lo stupro di Lucrezia); Barbarians by Hofesh Shechter Company; Deep Aerobics by Miguel Gutierrez.

Regaining equilibrium, RealTime 129, Oct-Nov 2015, Belgium/Germany column #05. Includes: Tanz im August, Berlin; 6 & 7 by TAO Dance Theatre; SCAN by Rosemary Butcher; Occasion III by Isabel Lewis.

Audio Stage, s.2, ep. 2: Jane Howard & Richard Watts

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“One of the interesting things about theatre criticism… is the breadth of works that theatre critics are supposed to see…. A literature critic isn’t going to review 50 Shades of Grey unless it’s a joke. Most of them aren’t reviewing commercial fiction; they’re reviewing literature. But theatre critics must review both small, independent, artistically difficult work and we review musicals.”
– Jane Howard

In our second episode on responsibility, Fleur and I are talking to arts journalists, critics and advocates Jane Howard and Richard Watts, in the lovely 3RRR studios. What you will get from this episode is an insight into how some of our prominent arts advocates understand the responsibility inherent in their work. What you WON’T get from this episode is any sense of the incredibly hot weather we had on that day! We were all exhausted!

Discussed in this episode:
processing difficult art, writing about famous people whose work you have never seen before, conscious and unconscious bias in writing about certain people, Cameron Woodhead, feminist comedy, how bad art can make for a very good review, Strictly Ballroom, drunk Saturday night crowds that laugh at anything, Margaret Pomeranz, Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, being a feminist reviewer, so many white voices!, issues of race and gender, and whether 200 words could ever be enough.

“My rule of thumb is, if they’ve been to my house for dinner, or I’ve been to their house for dinner, I’m not going to review them.”
– Richard Watts

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

The Critic #03

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This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading “The Critic #03” »

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The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)

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This text was first published in June-July 2014, in The Lifted Brow 23 – The Ego Issue.

1. IN WHICH WE ARE INTRODUCED TO DAVE

Dave the Comedian was an everyman; which is a tautology, because every man wants to be a comedian, and there is very little space in Australia for a comedian who isn’t an everyman. The space of stand-up comedy is defiantly masculine in the most traditional sense. Adrienne Blaine compares the stand-up comedian to the personification of erection: the man conquers his audience with laughter the way he would sexually subsume a woman; it is “a social area where patriarchal promise of dominion can be easily realised.” Comedian Pete Holmes compared the daily challenge of stand-up comedy to the ongoing work a man puts into confirming his masculine, non-homosexual, non-effeminate identity in these, crude, words: “you have to keep doing it and keep proving it every day — get your comedy dick hard every day and fuck audiences.”

Every woman who has spent time with comedians off-stage has felt the terrifying, laborious pressure to find them funny, to laugh, to let them feel that they are strong, victorious, alpha—even though the affirmation of women is never as valued as the respect of other comedians, other men. Comedy, like politics, is patriarchy condensed. Christopher Hitchens, who always seemed to identify with the alpha male, and uphold the values of patriarchy, wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that women could not be as funny as men, because they did not evolve with the constant, evolutionary need to impress females at all cost. The ones who were funny – he conceded some existed – were “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” In other words, too masculine to fit neatly into patriarchal gender roles, sorry.

“Dying on stage” is that exactly: a strangely mesmerising witnessing of someone’s social power crumbling entirely into nothingness. Dave the Comedian died on stage in the first five minutes. His jokes about finding clitoris were terrible. He kept asking how much time he had left (much). He berated the audience for not laughing. He vomited, fell, and started bleeding. He got confused and repeated his act twice. He made fat jokes, rape jokes, gay jokes, Julia Gillard jokes, and made it abundantly clear how much he was trying to impress Wil Anderson. In terms outlined above, according to which stand-up comedy is the world order, the comedian pure erection, and the audience a vagina to be conquered, Dave the Comedian was a spectacle of emasculation.
But Dave the Comedian was the joke itself, woven together out of gunk of masculinity by Zoe Coombs Marr, member of Sydney-based female performance collective post and apparently excellent in drag.

Coming from the intellectually rigorous and mature culture of performance in Sydney – where, unlike in Melbourne, the link between independent performance and academia is strong and fruitful – post had created a body of work that made elaborate formalist jokes about what is supposed to happen in theatre, deconstructing formal devices of traditional dramaturgy and stage design, of character and text. In Gifted and Talented in 2006, they improbably blended over-ambitious mothers’ programs for their daughters enrolled in a variety of appropriately feminine activities with the torture routines at Guantanamo Bay. In Shamelessly Glitzy Work in 2009, they overlaid a conversation recorded, seemingly, during an acid trip, with every device of drama and illusion that theatre had, making a bizarre variety show that had an undeniable and persuasive, if entirely artificial, dramatic force. And in Oedipus Schmoedipus, at Sydney Festival 2014, they staged every important death in the Western dramatic canon, one after another. Coombs-Marr’s solo work, on the other hand, emphasised extreme awkwardness, of which Dave must have been the pinnacle of possible.

It was hard to pinpoint what made Dave feel like a work of genius. Coombs-Marr’s feeling for pacing, tone, and structure destroyed Dave’s masculine ego in every way possible – he was even revealed to be gay – without once coming across as mean. If anything, Dave accumulated sympathy as he accumulated failures. It was hard to tell if a woman could not bring the kind of hate to her drag that a man could, or if the audience, given a portrait without overt commentary, defaulted to pity instead of ridicule, a gesture of generosity they would not necessarily have extended towards failure of femininity. However, it was the exuberance of the ridicule that seemed significant: because Zoe Coombs-Marr herself was a small, queer woman who nonetheless filled the stage to the brim, Dave and all the men he represented were never the centre of the piece, but simply a pretext for dressing up, for play-acting. The more that the show departed from garden-variety awkwardness into bizarre, the more inventive Dave’s questionable comedy choices became, the more we were settled into watching a woman take the piss out of masculinity. Paradoxically, it was precisely in the act of drag that Zoe Coombs-Marr asserted a female voice in the room, a voice that became all the more distinct, the more accurately she was pinning down the image of the unsuccessful male comedian. Unlike much of feminist comedy playing around Melbourne Comedy Festival, the flavour of this show was not oppositional, not angry, not pushing against a narrowly defined female role; instead, it was as if it swallowed a narrowly defined male role and showed how much a woman can encompass. It was this generosity, ultimately, that resonated. It seemed premonitory and indicative: this is what feminism 4.0 would look like. Continue reading “The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)” »

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The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)

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This text was first published in April-May 2014, in The Lifted Brow 22.

1. IN WHICH EPISTEMOLOGY IS DISCUSSED

The Critic always saw theatre from the first-person point of view, because there was no other way. Perhaps because, as a woman, she never felt she was able to assume the universal point of view. The idea of it – that she could see the world unmarred by who she was – felt impossible. The Critic saw beautiful, young women on stage, often in various states of undress, and could see that these were erotic stage images, but not for her. She saw hysterical women, men who would sooner commit suicide than admit an error, she saw manly banter and regret, she saw many things the meaning of which she knew, but did not feel. Theatre being theatre, she also saw many extremely rich people treat servants or people of colour badly, while they themselves revelled in relatively trivial problems, and sometimes thought about how those servants or people of colour represented her ancestors more than the protagonists, how the story of her people was only ever told on the margins. The Critic, in other words, always knew that the theatre was not meant for her, that her eyes were not the bull’s eye of the audience target, even when the message arrived. Even when she was greatly moved.

Why did the Critic like theatre, then? Why did she make it her life to see theatre three, four, five, sometimes even ten times a week, if she felt like an intruder? Because the Critic, like many – perhaps most – women, felt like an intruder in most discursive social situations already, and had become accustomed to feeling like she was sitting slightly to the left and down in the audience – a feeling that did not disappear in those prestigious, central seats. Sometimes she was elated, or crushed, sometimes her life changed while sitting in those seats; but it was an expected gift, because she had not been the target audience, because the magic that was done on her was done almost by accident.

It is said that privilege is marked by assuming that your views are representative of everyone’s. Speaking with various male critics after shows, ready to judge always slightly faster, the Critic often asked: “Why are you so sure that your opinion is the right one?” It was a strange question to many. “I know what I like,” they sometimes answered, tautology imperceptible to them.

“But you aren’t everyone”, the Critic might offer, uselessly, because in a certain sense they were everyone: they were the bull’s eye, the eye that mattered, the eye to which the art was offered. Oh, the Critic was able to pontificate with the best, argue her opinions, be sometimes insistently praising, sometimes cruelly harsh, but it was qualified intellectual bravado, always aware of where fact ended and personal opinion began.

It was with great relief that the Critic found Nataša Govedić, European dramaturg and performance critic, writing: “I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values, ideology if you prefer – and there doesn’t exist, not has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participiate in them.”

It is paradoxical, then, that the Critic had studiously avoided having opinions on supposedly ‘minority’ arts, such as Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival of LGBT arts, considering it and her mismatched. They were, of course, but less than feared. The queer audience arrived to the theatres with the same layered thinking, palpably so – everywhere around her the Critic could feel a suspicious, reserved energy of distantiation, of mistrust. ‘Is this work going to hurt me, or will it finally say something I can agree with?’ To the extent to which the audience mood can read, this is what the Midsumma audience seemed to be saying. Continue reading “The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)” »

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Like a Writing Desk

Two of my favourite things in the world are theatre and radio, which is why it was so exciting when Aden Rolfe emailed me to tell me his multi-awarded radio play Like a Writing Desk is about to air on Radio National.

I was in the middle of something else and very involved as it aired, so I am only listening to it now, and putting a link here in order to never lose it. As should you, because radio plays are almost certainly in the future of theatre, as well.

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